Published On: Wed, Dec 21st, 2022

Rutte apologizes: Slavery was a crime against humanity

THE HAGUE – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte offered his government’s apologies for the history of slavery on Monday December 19, in a speech at the National Archives in The Hague. We offer our readers hereby a verbatim translation of the speech which Rutte beforehand touted as “a meaningful moment.”

“Here in the National Archives history speaks to us through millions of documents. And even though we do not hear the unwritten voices from the past, the story that emerges from all those archived documents is not only beautiful. It is often also ugly, painful and even plain shameful. This is certainly true for the role of the Netherlands in the history of slavery.

We, living in the here and now, can only recognize and condemn slavery in the clearest terms as a crime against humanity. As a criminal system that has brought untold misery to many people worldwide and that works through in the lives of people here and now.

We in the Netherlands have to face our share in that history. This is why it is good that we meet each other today in the National Archives. Here our national memory is stored. This is the spot for a national examination of our conscience.

This is a place where you cannot get around historical facts. Until 1814 Dutch slave traders shipped more than 600,000 enslaved African women, men and children under awful circumstances to the American continent. Most of them went to Suriname, but they also went to Curacao, Sint Eustatius and other places. They were taken away from their families, dehumanized and transported and treated as cattle; often under the governmental authority of the West-Indian Company. In Asia between 600,000 and 1 million people – we do not even know exactly how many – were traded within the territories that were controlled by the United East Indian Company.

The numbers are unimaginable. The human suffering behind these numbers is even much more unimaginable. The countless stories and witness statements prove that under the slavery system cruelty and arbitrariness were immeasurable. And therefore there was no measure for injustice and fear.

We only have to read Anton de Kom’s We Slaves of Suriname to read about the most gruesome treatments and punishments. We read about whipping and torture until death, about people whose limbs were chopped off, about branding faces. The fate of one person was even more horrible that that of others. Each page speaks of injustice and more injustice.

And the Way Anton de Kom described it for Suriname, it happened also elsewhere, under the same Dutch government authority. We read it, we know it and still the horrible fate of enslaved people is hardly comprehensible.

Or look, indeed, at the facts as they emerge from the archives; for instance the enormous administration that was established for the abolishment of slavery in 1863 and that can be accessed here.

Page after page mentions per plantation and per slave owner the names of enslaved people plus some other personal information.

Businesslike, systematic, in a dry enumeration; this makes it so confrontational, because it emphasized the absurdity of a system whereby one human being turned another human being into merchandise.

A system that was so inhuman and unjust that in 1863 not the enslaved people received financial compensation from the state, but the slave owners.

And it could still be more hard-hearted, because everyone who became free in Suriname in 1863 was forced to continue working for another ten years under state supervision. De facto that meant for many another ten years of living without being free, a life under coercion.

Until 1873. Next year that will be 150 years ago.

History keeps us busy. It is a complex history whereby in different locations different years and events are significant.

It is not just 1863 and 1873, but for instance also 1860, the legal abolition of slavery in what was then the Dutch Indies. 1814 was the year when the Netherlands abolished the transatlantic slave trade; 1848 when slavery de facto ended on St. Maarten. Or for instance 1795 when there was a revolt on Cracao lead by Tula that is still remembered every year.

Countless moments, countless stories, endless pieces of history.

That history got more attention during the past couple of years – in exhibitions, in publications and in the public debate. A societal awareness is emerging and that also causes a change in the way we think. That is good and justified, because it has remained silent for too long.

I also experienced that change personally. I want to be open about that. For a long time I thought that it was not possible to take responsibility in a meaningful way for something that happened so long ago, something none of us has witnessed. For a long time I thought that the history of slavery is behind us. But I was wrong because centuries of suppression and exploitation have their effect on the here and now: in racist stereotypes; in discriminating patterns of exclusion; in social inequality. To break through that we must look at the past in an open and honest way.

This is a past that we share with other countries, whereby our communities are forever connected with each other in a special way. It is correct that nobody who is alive today carries guilt for the slavery. But it is also correct that the Dutch state in all its historical appearances is responsible for the enormous suffering that has been imposed on enslaved people and their descendants. Therefore we cannot ignore the effect of this history on our times.

The report Ketenen van het Verleden (Chains of the Past) of the Dialogue Group Slavery History plays an important role in the awareness process that many of us are going through. That report was published on July 1 of last year and it contains a number of clear conclusions and recommendations. The three key words are recognition, apologies and repair.

Today we will send the official reaction from the cabinet to the Second Chamber, wherein we embrace the analysis and the conclusions from the Dialogue Group.

During the past year and a half the cabinet has spoken in different ways and on different locations with different people and groups about the history of slavery. In September I was in Suriname where I learned how deep history is still interfering in the daily lives of people, also spiritually. I have also learned how experiences, memories and feelings can differ per group and per person.

It makes a difference whether your predecessors were stolen from Africa or that they belonged to the original population. It makes a difference in which country or region they lived their lives. And it also makes a difference during which period they lived.

The historical, geographical and cultural differences between groups of people matter, also today.

This makes expressing general statements about the history of slavery so vulnerable. How do you do justice to those differences? What is the best moment for it? How do you do justice to all those spiritual symbols and rituals that is so important in some cultures? And how do you find the words to express so much injustice, so much pain and so many atrocities?

Every attempt to do this will always be inadequate and trigger new questions and discussions, with all the emotions that belong to it.

We know that there is not one good moment for everybody. Not the correct words for everybody; not one correct location for everybody.

And I acknowledge that the run-up to this day could have been better. But let that not be a reason to do nothing. We have to make steps forward together. We have to move on together. So please, let us have that debate about the history of slavery, also if that debate becomes difficult.

Such a debate begins with recognition. We have to recognize the terrible sorrow that has been brought upon generations of enslaved people. We have to recognize and rehabilitate all those who resisted, such as the Marrons in Suriname.

Today I mention with respect the names of Tula on Curacao, Jolicoeur, Boni and Baron in Suriname and One Tété-Lokay in St. Maarten and we remember all those nameless women and men who have searched for freedom throughout the ages and who were often punished for it in the most gruesome manner.

And of course we have to recognize the historical responsibility with the appropriate words. These words.

For centuries the Dutch state and its representatives have made slavery possible, stimulated it, maintained it and profited from it.

For centuries human dignity has been trampled upon in the most atrocious manner under the authority of the Dutch state.

Successive Dutch governments since 1863 have insufficiently seen and recognized that the history of slavery had and has a negative effect.

For this I offer today apologies on behalf of the Dutch government.

Today, I apologize.

Today I apologize on behalf of the Dutch government for the actions of the Dutch state in the past: posthumous to all enslaved people who have suffered worldwide because of those actions, to their sons and daughters, and to all their descendants until the here and now.

We are not doing this to make a clean sweep; not to close off the past and leave it behind us. So today we put a comma, not a period.

The debate about the history of slavery has to be done as broadly as possible, not only in the Netherlands, but in particular in those locations where it happened, with everybody who is involved or feels involved.

This is why the apologies I expressed today will be heard on seven other places in the world, there where the pain and the consequences of the history of slavery are felt the most up to today and where these consequences are the most visible.

They will be reflected in words spoken by seven representatives of the Dutch government in Suriname, on Curacao, on Sint Maarten, Aruba, Bonaire, Saba and Statia.

The government wants to work closer in consultation with all groups and people from all countries with whom we share this past, to increase knowledge about the history of slavery and thereby create more awareness, recognition and understanding. That process takes time and we can only do the work together on our way to that important date of July 1, 2023; after that, during the whole commemorative year; and during the years after that.

There is extensive information about all this in the reaction of the cabinet tot the report from the Dialogue Group Slavery History.

The most important thing is right now that all the steps we are going to make, are really going to be made together. In consultation, listening and with the sole intention of doing justice to the past, healing in the present. A comma, not a period.

With Suriname, with the Caribbean parts of the kingdom and with all descendants in the Netherlands we will be working on the visibility of heritage, on awareness through education and on scientific-historic research.

During the commemorative year all aspects of the slavery-history and their effect on our times will be highlighted.

The King feels personally very involved with this topic and he will be present on July 1 next year at the commemoration and celebration in Amsterdam.

And we are looking further, past 2023.

An independent and broadly composed Commemoration Committee examines the best way to commemorate in the future, as much as possible together.

There will be a fund for social initiatives in the whole kingdom and Suriname. This way the effect of the slavery-history and the visibility will get the attention and approach it deserves.

The process of healing must begin now and we must write the program for it together.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The book of our shared history contains many pages that trigger for us, living in the twenty-first century, astonishment, disgust and profound shame.

We are not eradicating those pages with these apologies and that is also not our intention. We cannot change the past, we can only face it.

What the government is hoping, and what I am hoping as well, is that this moment, this day will help us throughout the kingdom and together with Suriname and other countries, to fill the open pages that are before us with dialogue, recognition and healing.”